Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. The Power of Not Giving Up Took Him
to the Moon
By: John Shepler
In the powdery surface of the moon at Fra Mauro lie two golf
balls. They are waiting to be pitched high into the inky starlit
vacuum and on to their next roll, some hundreds of yards farther
along the surface. They are waiting for a worthy golfer. They
are waiting for someone special to pick up where Alan Shepard,
the man who first struck them, left off. They are waiting for
that one man or woman who wants it badly, the one who just won't
give up until they've played the course at Fra Mauro.
Shepard was one of those kids who hung around airports when aviation
was just getting established in the thirties. After school and
on weekends, he'd high-tail it to the landing field so he could
help push airplanes in and out of hangars. Sometimes the pilots
would let him sit at the controls and work the stick. When they
felt it was time for a bigger reward they'd take Alan flying
with them. He knew then that aviation was going to be his life.
It was just a matter of sticking with it.
Alan Shepard didn't have a privileged upbringing, nor did
he suffer great hardships. He started off just like most of us.
Actually, his early education was more in the setting of an earlier
era. The rural schoolhouse in East Derry, New Hampshire had one
teacher, six grades and one room. Alan was in awe of the teacher
who seemed nine feet tall in recollection. She was a knuckle-rapping
disciplinarian who taught him to study and stick to it. Alan
took to it. He took to it so well that he finished all six grades
in only five years.
Alan's boyhood hero was Charles Lindbergh, first to fly the
Atlantic in the "Spirit of St. Louis." Perhaps it was
the excitement of those early days of airplanes, new frontiers
and brave pilots. Perhaps he idolized Lindbergh and programmed
himself with the notion of being the first man to cross a new
frontier. Perhaps it was that, or the lesson of Lindbergh's triumphant
landing at Le Bourget airfield in Paris that indelibly marked
him with the idea that the impossible is not impossible for someone
who gets out there and does it. Something during those early
years set Alan Shepard in the pattern he'd follow for the rest
of his career. Get out there, get it done, set an example for
others by being the best at what you are doing, and don't give
up until you make it happen.
Alan's smarts, discipline and energy did not go unnoticed
in the community. A friend of his father's, a Naval Academy graduate,
thought Alan was pretty bright and just might pass the academy
exams with a little extra study. He suggested to Alan Bartlett
Shepard, Sr. that "Maybe he could get into the Naval Academy,
become a Naval Officer, and go through flight school. Then he
can go through college and fly airplanes at the same time. He
could become an aviator and use his talents."
That's just what happened. Alan graduated from Annapolis,
applied himself to being a standout aircraft carrier pilot, then
an exceptional test pilot. When 110 invitations were sent out
to the best of the best military pilots to join the fledgling
space program, Alan's drive to keep a little ahead of the pack
paid off. He was selected to be among the Mercury 7. Then there
was one. The one who would follow in Charles Lindbergh's footsteps
and start to open a new frontier in the heavens. His destiny
was fulfilled as Freedom VII lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral
on May 5, 1961. Alan Shepard would forever be the first American
This story could end there, and it almost did. While preparing
for the Gemini missions, Alan developed dizzy spells that were
diagnosed as Meniere's Disease, a problem of the inner ear. Doctors
told him he had maybe a 20% chance of correcting it...perhaps
it might go away on its own. But he shouldn't count on that.
NASA said they'd let him fly again if the problem went away and
that in the meantime he could help select the astronauts for
the upcoming missions. So he moved to Houston and kept himself
in shape while he waited for something to work out medically.
Six long years passed.
Finally, Alan Shepard found a doctor that could correct his
inner ear disorder, and he was miraculously back on flight status.
He jumped at the assignment to Apollo XIV and did a little work
behind the scenes to prepare for destiny yet again. Just before
re-entering the lunar excursion module for the launch off the
moon, Alan reached into his pocket in full view of the TV camera
and produced the head of a six iron golf club. It had been specially
fabricated to screw into the end of a shaft used to retrieve
dust samples from the moon's surface. Swinging one-armed in the
bulky space suit, he chipped a 40 yard hole-in-one to a crater
and then swatted the second ball in a high arc he described as
going for "miles and miles." It is said that as many
people recall seeing Alan Shepard playing golf on the moon as
remember Neil Armstrong's first tentative steps down the ladder
Alan Shepard could have given up at any time. But if he had,
he wouldn't have been the first American in space. He probably
wouldn't have had the opportunity to exchange thoughts with his
boyhood hero when Charles Lindbergh visited NASA. Certainly,
there would have been no one to leave those golf balls on the
moon...and the challenge to the next generation to get back there
and keep them in play. That privilege will go to someone who
also has the "right stuff," the power that comes with
not giving up.
Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. died July 21, 1998. Donations
in his memory can be made to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation
at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, 6225 Vectorspace Blvd., Titusville,